Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fare Thee Well Marcus Borg, 1942-2015

Having just mentioned him two days ago in my 2014 Reading List (I read two books by him last year), I learned late last night that my favorite Christian scholar and theologian, Marcus Borg, died yesterday at the age of 72.

There's not yet much information about what happened, but one Episcopal blogger, who is also a personal friend, said that Dr. Borg had died after a "prolonged illness."  This doesn't make much sense, since Borg was blogging himself as recently as December without any mention or indication of an illness.  

Either way, I am heartbroken to hear of his passing.  Here's what I wrote about him in a blog post last year:  

Marcus Borg is my favorite Christian scholar and writer.  To me, he's a modern-day Christian Bodhisattva.  Just reading his books gives me a sense of peace and tranquility.  He's also a brilliant scholar of the bible and the historical Jesus.  Unlike many academic biblical scholars, however, he's also a Christian theologian.  I had the pleasure of hearing him preach one Sunday morning in Lexington, Kentucky, a few years back.

Among my favorite scholars and theologians, he's the only one I've ever heard speak in person, and I've always regretted chickening out of going up to him after the service that day and introducing myself.  I especially regret it now that he has died. 

Borg was well-known as a scholar and theologian, a university professor in Oregon, a prolific and best-selling writer, and a major voice in the field of historical Jesus scholarship.  I've read a number of his books.  "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary," published in 2009, is hands down the best book on the historical Jesus I have ever read.  I awarded it the Serene Musings Book of the Year Award in 2010, one of only two non-fiction books that I've ever given that title to.  I always tell people that if you are interested in getting beyond the Jesus of Sunday School and learning more about the Jesus of history, how he lived, why he lived, what motivated him, and what he was really trying to teach, this is the first book you should go to.  And that's true whether you are a progressive, conservative, liberal, traditional, evangelical, or an atheist.  Certainly if you are a traditional evangelical, you won't agree with everything you read in the book, but one of Borg's gifts was not just the ability to effectively communicate his ideas, but to do so in a gentle, compassionate, and inclusive way.  Of all the biblical scholars I read, I think Borg is the one best able to bring people together from all ends of the theological spectrum.  His kindness and gentleness towards ideas and beliefs contrary to his own are what sets him apart from most religious writers, in my opinion. 

Having grown up in moderate Southern Baptist churches, and having attended a moderate Southern Baptist college, I found myself, in my mid- to late-20s, having a sort of spiritual crisis.  Like a lot of reflective and cerebral people, I started questioning a lot of the things I had grown up believing.  Somewhat opposite of those stories you frequently hear in church, or from religious people, about experiences that "proved" to them that God is real, I had some experiences that, at the time, I could only view as more or less "proving" that God was either not real, or was, at the very least, totally different from what I had always believed.  

After a few years of struggling and questioning some things, I found myself in 2004, 29 years old, divorced, living alone, and questioning whether I could really believe in God at all anymore.

It was then that a therapist I was seeing suggested the books of Marcus Borg.  Specifically, he suggested Borg's book "The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith."  

I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that, if not for this book, I likely would have lost my religious faith all together - something I have seen occur to a number of people around me.  This book, quite simply, allowed me to continue to believe in God.  And it set me on the path of religious discovery that I have been on ever since.  It's what started my now decade-long interest in religious scholarship, theology, and history.  I even considered, briefly, applying for graduate programs in the field of religious studies.  Though I obviously never did that, I did embark on a course of self-study that continues up to the present day.  For several years, this blog was basically my classroom, where I posted dozens of essays on religious scholarship, many of which are still among my favorites.  All of that, ultimately, goes back to "The God We Never Knew" and Marcus Borg's profound influence on my own spiritual path.  

Regardless of where you stand on life after death, one thing is undeniable: you continue on, here on earth, beyond your death, through the influence you've had on other people.  Your words, your actions, your behaviors...these are the things that continue to be real and tangible beyond your natural life.  In that sense, Marcus Borg will live on for a very long time in the countless lives, including mine, that his work and teachings have enriched.  Godspeed, Dr. Borg.

Well done, my good and trustworthy servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.      

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2014 Reading List

It's that time of the year again.  That's right, time for me to reveal my previous year's reading list.  This has become a January tradition here at Serene Musings and given the dozens and dozens of responses I get every year to these posts, I know you, Dear Reader, have been patiently waiting for this year's installment.  (That's a little joke, by the way.  I don't think I've ever had a response to any of these posts except possibly from my sister or father, and they don't count.)

I read 31 books this year, down 15 from last year's 46.5, but well more than the 20 I read in 2012.  This year's total was less than last year's primarily because I read so many lengthy novels this year that simply can't be read in just a week or ten days.

As usual, at the end of the list, I will choose a Serene Musings Book of the Year, which will then be added to the gallery at the bottom of the main page.  This is a highly coveted award, and this year's competition has been fierce.

So let's get to it.  Italicized titles are non-fiction books.  Books with an asterisk (*) are nominees for Book of the Year.  


Speaking Christian – Marcus Borg

This is a great book by one of my favorite religious scholars, but since I wrote a whole blog post about it in January, I won't go into it here.  In a nutshell, this book was about the language of Christianity, how it has been distorted by centuries of theology, and how we can reclaim it in genuine and honest ways.  

Watership Down – Richard Adams  

This is a classic novel from the 1970s about the adventures of a group of rabbits who migrate to a new warren.  I wrote a whole blog post about this book as well.  

The Dark Monk – Oliver Potzsch

This was the second book in a series by a German writer, translated into English.  The novels are mysteries set in Bavaria during the 17th century, and I really wanted to like the series, but I gave up on it after this book.  It wasn't that the story was terrible, although it was just okay, but it really boiled down to the fact that the books are translations.  I've read a number of translated novels over the years, and I've basically never read one that didn't seem choppy and awkward in places.  That, taken together with just okay plots and premises, spelled the end of this series for me.  Which is unfortunate, since I'd already bought books 3 and 4!  Oh well, they were only $2.99 apiece on sale (which is why I'd bought them to start with).  

The Power of Parable – John Dominic Crossan 

Another great book by another of my favorite religious scholars.  This one discussed how the parabolic teachings of Jesus influenced later Christians to write parabolically about Jesus.  

The King’s Hounds – Martin Jensen  

Another historical mystery series, another translation (from Danish, I think), and another decision not to continue with the series.  The only reason I tried this one was because it was cheap and it was set in 11th century England during the reign of the King Cnut, which I thought made for a really interesting setting.  Unfortunately, it was pretty much the same situation I encountered with the German books...choppy writing caused by translation from another language, and just okay plotting.

The Greatest Prayer* – John Dominic Crossan   

Another religious book, this one took a very close look at the Lord's Prayer, breaking it down line by line in order to better understand the overall purpose and core of Jesus's teachings.  It was a fascinating book and has become one of those that influenced my own spiritual practice.  Since reading this book, I have started routinely reciting the Lord's Prayer during my meditation, applying and meditating on the deeper meaning to the words that were illuminated by Crossan.  Highly recommended to those seeking a deeper understanding of Jesus's teachings.

Vicious Circle – Wilbur Smith

The latest offering from the greatest adventure novelist in the history of the English language.  He's in his 80s now, and this book wasn't a 5-star offering, but it's still Wilbur, and Wilbur's always gon' be Wilbur.  

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think – Brian Wansink

Mindful Eating – Jan Chozen Bays

I read these two books in the early spring in an effort to rekindle my dedication to eating healthy.  It wasn't that I had started being a slob again, but I felt that I needed a boost after the winter.  The first book, about mindless eating, was really fascinating, going into details about various studies done on people's eating habits.  The author showed how marketing and packaging and even pricing can have such a profound influence on not just what we eat, but how much we eat.  The second book, about mindful eating, was written by a physician who is also a Buddhist nun, and the book taught a really sensible method for slowing down, savoring your food, and ultimately eating less, while getting more joy from the foods that you do eat.  She talked at length about different kinds of hunger, including things like eye hunger and mouth hunger and nose hunger, ultimately arguing that we need to listen more to our cells, rather than to our nose or mouth or eyes, when determining when and what to eat.  It made a lot of sense and I have been using her ideas and methods in my own eating habits ever since.  Between these two books and the changes to my eating habits that they engendered, I was able to drop another ten pounds by April of last year (sadly, I've gained that weight back since the holidays and now need another rekindling, I think).

They Thirst – Robert McCammon    

A run-of-the-mill vampire novel by another of my favorite writers.  It's an older book of his and was just okay.  A lot of "just okay" novels at the start of 2014, unfortunately. 

In Cold Blood* – Truman Capote

A classic narrative non-fiction book about a brutal murder in Kansas in the 1950s and the subsequent trial of the perpetrators.  Capote spent several years in Kansas investigating the crime and interviewing the suspects, and it allowed him to write a remarkably detailed account of the events.  This book is routinely listed among the greatest in the 20th century, and frequently appears on lists of "must-read" classics.  

The Terror* – Dan Simmons

I don't remember how or why I discovered this book and Dan Simmons in general, but I did, and I'm glad I did.  This was a huge novel set in the 1850s and dealing with the real historical mystery of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin to discover the northwest passage.  It's a combination of historical thriller and horror novel, and I really enjoyed it.  Interestingly enough, just a few months after I finished reading this novel, the Canadian government announced that they had finally, after almost 170 years, discovered one of the ships from the expedition, resting on the ocean floor.  

Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm – Thich Nhat Hanh

You Are Here – Thich Nhat Hanh

How to Raise the Perfect Dog – Cesar Millan

The Wolf’s Hour – Robert McCammon

This was a re-read of one of my favorite thrillers of all time, which I first read about twelve years ago.  Sadly, I wasn't quite as enamored with it the second time through.  I mean, it was fine, but I guess my tastes have matured a bit since I first read it.  

The Hunter from the Woods – Robert McCammon

The long-awaited sequel to the book above (long-awaited, as in, like, 25 years).  Rather than being a true novel, it was a series of short stories starring the main character from the previous book.  It was just okay.  

Plaster City – Johnny Shaw

Moving Day – Jonathan Stone

As a member of Amazon Prime, I get to choose from among four new-release books each month to download to my Kindle for free.  The books are always novels by mid-level authors and are published through Amazon's publishing house.  Each month, if one of the offered books sounds good, I'll download it.  These were the first two books I read from this program, and they were both pretty good.  Certainly nothing to go tell everyone at work about, but they were good escapist fiction, short novels that entertained me for a few days.  

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins  

This was a classic British novel from the 1850s, widely regarded as one of the first mystery novels ever written.  If you're up for 19th century British literature, it's a must-read.  

Dubh-Linn – James L. Nelson

The second book in a series about Viking-Age Ireland in the 800s by an author I first read back in the 1990s after he published a series of pirate novels.  I love pirates.  Anyway, these books are okay, although I haven't decided yet if I'll continue with the series.  Nelson used to publish with a regular publisher, but he's now self-publishing for some reason (I guess because he wanted more of the profits), but unfortunately he needs a better copy-editor.  There are a lot of typos and such in the text, which are distracting.    

Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton  

A re-read, obviously. 

The Plantagenets* – Dan Jones

A really good history book about the Plantagenets, who were the kings of England from the 12th to the 15th centuries.  I loved it.  

Artful – Peter David

Another of the Amazon freebies, this one was set in Dickensian London and attempted to continue the story of the Artful Dodger, begun in Dickens' book Oliver Twist.  The "twist" (pardon the pun) in this novel is that the Dodger is a vampire hunter.  It was pretty entertaining.  

The Norman Conquest – Marc Morris

Another really good history book, this one about the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.  Like the Plantagenet book, it's a must-read for lovers of medieval British history. 

Fall of Giants* – Ken Follett

Winter of the World – Ken Follett

Edge of Eternity – Ken Follett

These were the three books of the so-called Century Trilogy by Ken Follett, novels set against the backdrop of the major events of world history during the 20th century.  They were all about a thousand pages, and I spent the majority of the last four months of the year reading them.  They were well worth it.  I liked the first one best, but that's primarily because it centered largely on World War One, which has always been my favorite era of the 20th century.  If you like historical fiction, I recommend them.  I think it's best if you do what I did and read all three of them right in a row.  It helps to keep the personalities and family histories straight.  

The First Paul – Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan 

One of several collaborations between these two scholars, this was a detailed look at the writings of Paul in the New Testament and what they can tell us about the most important figure in Christian history.  

ScreamFree Parenting – Hal Edward Runkel

A Facebook friend suggested this book and I really enjoyed it.  It gave very practical and sensible advice for how to change your parenting style and have a more fulfilling relationship with your kids.  I've taken its advice to heart and I can honestly say that I don't yell at my kids anymore.  I think more about how I parent these days and I feel like my relationship with my kids - and my family in general - has gotten better since I read this book.  The book does require making some basic lifestyle changes in how you approach parenting, and it won't work if you don't "get on board," so to speak, but I really think it offers a great alternative to the typical style of parenting that most of us do.  

Hell House – Richard Matheson 

Around Halloween I was looking online for scary books and several websites that I went to suggested this one from a well-known horror writer who died a few years back.  One blogger even went so far as to say that this was the scariest book they'd ever read.  Numerous people said this book terrified them.  After seeing a lot of people suggest this one, I bought it.  I ended up giving it 2 stars on Goodreads and it wasn't scary at all.  Frankly, I don't really understand how otherwise grown adults can actually get "scared" by a book.  I mean, a movie is one thing - the music and setting and lighting can affect your senses and induce dread, and stuff jumping out at the screen can startle you.  But a book can't really do those things.  It can be creepy, sure, but to actually "terrify" you?  Maybe I'm too much of a rationalist.  In any case, part of this book's problem is that it was written in the 1970s when parapsychology was still given credence by a lot of people.  This is basically a haunted house book where two mediums and a parapsychologist who doesn't believe in the supernatural go to a haunted house to try to uncover its secrets.  All in all, I found the book to be terribly dated, unrealistic, and not the least bit "scary."


So now it's time for picking a Book of the Year.  The nominees this year are:  

The Greatest Prayer
In Cold Blood
The Terror
The Plantagenets
The Fall of Giants  

And the winner is...

This was a down year for really great books.  I think I gave 5 stars on a few of these on Goodreads, but even the 5-star books weren't knock-your-socks off, Oh My God I Loved That Book, good.  I really enjoyed The Terror, but even it had its slow parts and some of the plot devices were a bit strange.  Also, Simmons' writing style can be plodding at times because of his tendency to write super-long sentences.  Still, he edged out Truman Capote's In Cold Blood primarily because I loved the setting and historical background of this book.